Following the Assembly election on 5 May 2016, arrangements were put in place to allow the establishment of an 'Official Opposition'. This significant change to the operation of the Assembly works was agreed during the Stormont House talks at the end of November 2015. Parties which are entitled, under d’Hondt, to a Minister or Ministers on the Executive Committee can choose to 'opt out' and form an Official Opposition.
The role of the Official Opposition is to question and scrutinise the work of the Executive Committee, (Northern Ireland Government). The Official Opposition is entitled to research and financial assistance, extra speaking and questioning rights in plenary meetings, and the right to determine Assembly business on 10 plenary days per year. The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) became part of the first Official Opposition on 25 May 16 when they declined to nominate one Minister each. The Assembly's experience of Official Opposition ended prematurely on 24 January 2017 when the Assembly was dissolved for a 'snap' election following Martin McGuinness' resignation as Deputy First Minister and collapse of the Executve.
When the Executive was restored in January 2020 and d'Hondt run, the Ulster Unionist Party and Social Democratic and Labour Party accepted the invitation to nominate Ministers, as did all other eligible parties. Therefore, no 'Official Opposition' was formed. Other, smaller parties, not in the Executive Committee, perform an ‘unofficial opposition’ role and Committees and individual MLAs contine to play their part in scrutinising the work of Ministers and Departments, and hold them to account.
Note: John McCallister MLA introduced a Private Member's Bill to establish an Official Opposition. The Assembly and Executive Reform (Opposition) Bill received Royal Assent and became an Act on 23 March 2016, shortly before dissolution of the Assembly for the May 2016 election. It has not yet been implemented. For this to happen, the Assembly’s Standing Orders (rules of the Assembly) have to be changed – by a cross-community vote in the Chamber. It is the role of the Procedures Committee of the Assembly (Standing Committee) to consider the implications of the Act and bring forward proposals to change Standing Orders. Until that happens, it is the arrangements agreed between parties at the Fresh Start talks in November 2015 which apply.
Q. Which parties have seats at the Northern Ireland Executive Table? Which parties/independent MLAs are not part of the Executive? Without an 'Official Opposition', can the Assembly effectively carry out its scrutiny role?